An annual Taiwan-Japan tourism forum opened in the central Taiwan city of Taichung on Friday, with both sides agreeing to bring forward the goal of 7 million two-way tourist exchanges by one year to 2019.

Commenting on the target figure, Yeh Chu-lan, head of the Taiwan Visitors Association, said, "We're almost there, only one small step away."

According to government data, more than 6.5 million people traveled between Taiwan and Japan in 2017, up from just under 6.2 million the previous year.

(Tourists watch cherry blossoms in full bloom, Mt. Fuji, and a five-story pagodan Yamanashi Prefecture on April 6)

Of that figure, the number of Taiwanese visitors to Japan exceeded 4.6 million, an increase of more than 320,000 from the previous year.

The number of Japanese who traveled to Taiwan was less than half that number at about 1.89 million, up only 3,000 from the previous year.

With the opening of Taichung's flora exposition in November and the summer Olympics in Tokyo in 2020, Yeh voiced confidence that two-way traffic could reach 9 million by 2020.

Taichung Mayor Lin Chia-lung said he estimated the flora expo will attract at least 8 million visitors to Taiwan, including 300,000 to 500,000 from Japan, while the Tokyo Olympics will attract at least 1 million Taiwanese visitors to Japan.

Direct flights between Taichung and Narita airports are to begin on June 14, Japanese delegation head Norio Yamaguchi noted.

Yoshiaki Honpo, a Japan Tourism Agency special adviser, said the number of Taiwanese visitors to Japan from January to March this year increased to 1.13 million, up 10 percent on the year. The number of Japanese visitors to Taiwan also increased in the same period.

The Taiwan-Japan Tourism Summit Forum, first held in Taipei in 2008, is alternated between Taiwan and Japan and attended by government officials and representatives of the tourism industry.